Abkhazia: Candidates face off in Abkhazia Elections
Five candidates squared off Sunday for the presidency of breakaway Abkhazia, all vowing to keep the separatist Black Sea resort area independent of Georgia, which dismissed the election as illegal.
Abkhazia has run its own affairs since 1993 when separatists drove out Georgian government troops, and it has cultivated close ties with Russia.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has dismissed the election as illegitimate and vowed to restore central rule not only to Abkhazia, but also to South Ossetia, another breakaway area. Earlier this year, he forced the leader of another autonomy-minded region, Adzharia, to flee to Russia.
But Saakashvili has had no luck in reining in Abkhazia. All five candidates in the Sunday election vowed to protect Abkhazia's independence.
The front-runner in the election was Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba, backed by outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba and by neighboring Russia, but opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh posed a strong challenge. Bogpash is the head of the area's state energy company,
An exit poll by the EGSUPD company showed Khadzhimba winning 56 percent, and Bagapsh trailing him with 25 percent, the Interfax news agency reported.
Sunday's vote was the first time Abkhazians cast ballots since Ardzinba, 59, took the helm of the Black Sea region more than 15 years ago, when Abkhazia was part of the Soviet republic of Georgia. Ardzinba was legally prohibited from seeking another term.
Abkhazia's languishing economy and a lack of international recognition has been the focus for much of the candidates' campaigning. Most Abkhazians are unemployed.
"I voted for Khadzhimba: he's a tough man and he will establish order," said Inal Adleiba, a 49-year old technician. "Georgia must stay away. We will run our own affairs."
About 70 percent of Abkhazia's residents have Russian citizenship, and the region uses the Russian ruble, not the Georgian lari. The region's lush Black Sea coast is a popular destination for Russian tourists.
Georgian media have ignored the election
"What's to be said about the situation? Foremost that there is no justice. They threw us out of our homes there," said Lado Adamiya, 55, one of roughly 300,000 ethnic Georgians who were displaced during the war between Georgia and Abkhazia in the early 1990s.
A former engineer who now gets by selling goods at a market in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for $7 a day, Adamiya said it was a crime that the rest of the world was ignoring the situation of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia.
"I don't care who they elect in Abkhazia," he said.
Source: Associated Press